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Interfaith Celebrities: New TV Season, New Football Season 2009

September 30, 2009

The Jewish New Year usually falls in September, which also marks the beginning of a new school year, a new television season and a new football season. You'll have to find the other interfaith families at school yourselves, but I can clue you in to who among the players on television and on the gridiron is Jewish, or has a connection to an interfaith family.

New TV Season, New Shows

The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies (E.R.) has been praised by many critics as one of the best new shows of the new season. Margulies, 43, plays Alicia, a woman who has to support herself and her two teenage children after her husband (Chris Noth), a politician, gets involved in a sex/corruption scandal that puts him in jail. (Started Tuesday, Sept. 22, 10 PM, CBS)

Julianne Margulies
Julianna Margulies discussing her new television show in August. Photo: Reuters/Fred Prousser.

She decides to return to her old profession, as a defense attorney, after a 13-year-break. Alicia gets a position as a junior associate with a major Chicago law firm with the help of an old friend, law firm partner Will Gardener.

Gardener is played by Jewish actor Josh Charles, 37. He's a very good actor who has been in a lot of short-lived TV series. You may best remember him as a co-star of Sports Night.

Margulies, as I said in a previous profile, has an unusual background. Her parents were both born Jewish, but her mother converted to Christianity when she was about 5 years old. Margulies was secular as an adult. However, in 2007, she wed her husband, lawyer Keith Lieberthal, in a Jewish ceremony and they now have a son. Lieberthal comes from a religious family.

Charles, by the way, was long romantically involved with Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, who is the daughter of a non-Jewish Irish father and a Jewish mother. Later Connelly married English actor Paul Bettany.

The CBS series, Accidentally on Purpose, co-stars Jewish actor Jon Foster, 25, the brother of actor Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma). He plays a young slacker who has a fling with an older woman (Jenna Elfman, 37) that results in an unplanned pregnancy and an unexpected relationship.

Elfman, who played the half-Jewish character, Dharma Finkelstein, on the hit sit-com, Dharma and Greg, is not Jewish or half-Jewish in real life. Born Jennifer Butala, she took the last name of her husband, actor Bodhi Elfman.

Bodhi Elfman's father, musician Richard Elfman, is Jewish. I am not sure if Bodhi's mother is Jewish. (Richard Elfman is the brother of famous movie music composer Danny Elfman). Observers have described Bodhi and Jenna Elfman as among the most devout of Hollywood's celebrity Scientology followers.

Eastwick is an ABC series that began on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 10 PM. Based on the popular film, The Witches of Eastwick, it is about three different women who find themselves drawn together by a mysterious man who unleashes unique powers in each of them. One of the three, Kat Gardener, is played by pretty Jewish red-headed actress Jamie Ray Newman, 31. Newman has long had a dual career as a TV actress and jazz singer.

Mercy is an NBC medical drama, set in a hospital, centering on the lives of three staff nurses. (Started Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8PM). One of the three nurses is played by cute Jewish actress Michelle Trachtenberg, 23 (Gossip Girl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Two new women have joined the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live. (New season began Saturday, Sept. 26) One is Iranian-American Nasim Pedrad, whom I suspect is Jewish, but I haven't confirmed that. The other is Brooklyn-based Jewish comedian Jenny Slate, 25, who has long been the darling of hip New York City comedy clubs.

Jason Schwartzman, 29, stars as Jonathan Ames, a Brooklyn writer who tries to get over a romantic break-up by pursuing a part-time career as a private eye in the new HBO series, Bored to Death. (Started Sunday, Sept. 20, 9:30 PM).

As I noted in a previous profile, Schwartzman's late father was Jewish and his mother is actress Talia Coppola Shire (Rocky), who isn't Jewish. Schwartzman was raised secular. His mother is the sister of famous director Italian-American film director Francis Coppola and Jason's first cousin is actor Nicolas Cage (the son of Francis and Talia's brother, August Coppola.)

The character Schwartzman plays (Jonathan Ames) is supposed to be Jewish. This fact comes out in the very first scene of the show. Ames being Jewish is true-to-life: the series creator/writer is (real-life) Brooklyn Jewish writer Jonathan Ames, 45. He writes novels, feature non-fiction stories, and comic memoirs. Ames also appears in clubs and bars telling funny first-person stories. His tales include accounts of two boxing matches he has fought under the name The Herring Wonder.

Ames wrote a very amusing short piece about the late writer George Plimpton. It has a funny interfaith angle that I won't spoil here.

Last, but not least, is actress Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), whose talent I have long admired. She has just joined the cast of the hit NBC series, Law and Order: Special Victims' Unit. (Wednesdays, 9 PM). Lahti plays the assistant district attorney who works hand in glove with the unit detectives in prosecuting sex crimes. Lahti, 59, has been married to director, writer and producer Thomas Schlamme since 1983 and they have three children. Schlamme, who is Jewish and the son of German Jewish refugees, has won a slew of Emmys for directing and producing such series as Sports Night and The West Wing.

In 2002, Lahti, who was raised Lutheran, starred in the Showtime original film, Out of the Ashes, about a Jewish gynecologist at Auschwitz who saved the lives of about a thousand women. Just before the film aired, she and her husband were profiled in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

New Pro Football Season

The pro football season has begun and it's time to discuss the Jewish players in the NFL. While the number of Jewish players in major league baseball has increased substantially in the last few years, the football picture is pretty static. No Jewish rookie players survived the training camp cuts, and so all the Jewish players in pro football this year are returning veterans. Here's the list, prepared with the help of Jewish Sports Review newsletter:

David Binn, 37, San Diego, long snapper was an all-pro player in 2007. Binn holds the record for the most games that anyone has played in a Charger uniform. Igor Olshanksy, 27, defensive end, Dallas. A top player formerly with San Diego, Olshanksy signed a big money contract with Dallas in the off-season. Other Jewish players include Adam Podlesh, 26, punter, Jacksonville Sage Rosenfels, 31, back-up quarterback, Minnesota and Geoff Schwartz, 23, outside tackle, Carolina.

As I noted last year, Rosenfels and Binn have an interfaith background: both are the sons of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. My sense is that Rosenfels identifies as Jewish but isn't religious. Binn was raised without religion. However, when contacted, Binn was happy to be identified as a Jewish athlete in the Jewish Sports Review. (The rest of the players, above, have two Jewish parents).

In August, the St. Louis Jewish community website Jewish in St. Louis ran a great profile on Mark Rubin, a strong safety out of Penn State, who was invited to the St. Louis Rams training camp as an undrafted rookie player. Rubin was cut in July, but was called back when two other safeties were injured. Sadly, Rubin was cut, again, in early September, just before the season began.

Rubin discusses his Jewish background in the piece. His father is Jewish by birth and his mother is a Jew-by-choice.

After reading this piece, the heartbreak of getting cut after coming so close to making to the pros really came home to me. I am sure Rubin will do more than okay outside of football. He has a lot to fall back on. He earned a Bachelor of Science in finance and a Bachelor of Arts in public relations, while graduating with a 3.80 GPA. He was accepted by Penn State's graduate school as a MBA candidate this fall. He was named First Team Academic All-American in 2008. Still, I wish that he had got a chance to play pro ball.

On a happier note, here's an update about one college player. In early 2007, not long after I began writing this column, I profiled then-rookie college player Taylor Mays. Mays, then 18, had recently finished his first season as starting safety for University Southern California. That year, Mays told the Los Angeles Times he thought preparing for his bar mitzvah was the experience that readied him most for being a disciplined athlete.

Mays grew up in Seattle, where his white, Jewish mother, Laurie Mays, is an executive for Nordstrom and his (non-Jewish) African American father, Stafford Mays, a former NFL lineman, is an executive for Microsoft.

Mays has fulfilled his early promise and is starting his senior year ranked as one of the best college football players in the country. As his Wikipedia entry notes:

On January 13, 2009, two days before the deadline for college players to declare for the Draft, Mays announced that he would return to USC for his last year. Mays was regarded as unanimous first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft but opted to return to continue to develop and to complete his education at Southern California, citing the importance of graduating to himself and his parents as well as giving his last shot at leading USC to the national championship.
Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah."

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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